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Ideas of Design Exhibition
“Graphic”, 2009, n. 11

In 2009 “Graphic” – a quarterly magazine based in Korea which covers, through monographic issues, topics that are topical for the practice and critique of graphic design – has devoted an issue to “Ideas of Design Exhibition.” This issue offers an interesting reference for our research, since it has caught a rising phenomenon, that of the engagement of designers in curating and exhibiting design, and has recorded some relevant ideas and hints around it.
As explained in the editorial statement the aim of the issue is to present the most recent trend in design exhibitions through a selection of 12 projects that have been held in various countries in the years 2006-2009. Exhibitions have been selected among shows that are different from the mere showcase of design products or portfolios, and that are «more conceptual», having «an insight into a definition of design». The selection includes: Kiosk, Forms of Inquiry, Kinross: Modern Typography (1992, 2004, 2009), In Real Life, From Mars, Place It, Designing Critical Design, Visual Poetry Kumgansan, Roma Publications 1–90, Extended Captions (DDDG), Graphic Design in the White Cube, On Purpose. Most of the selected exhibitions – which have been conceived and realized in different contexts, from galleries to the art museum – have been curated by graphic designers and independent curators. Besides presenting basic information on each project, the editorial staff of “Graphic” has investigated the points of view of the curators, through a series of questions concerning the concept and development of their show, the role of publication/catalogue and the trends of design exhibitions etc.
Some points seem to emerge with particular evidence from the pages of “Graphic.” Firstly, of course, there are the criteria chosen by the editorial staff, which are themselves already a reading of the considered phenomenon. That is exploring exhibitions which have a critical (speculative) approach to design and that «present a design methodology for design that makes it possible for design to convert itself into the various media, such as graphic design, architecture, public space, online space, publishing, etc.»
This latter quality – the design exhibition being an element in a chain of media – is specifically interesting with regards to graphic design, because of the relationship that can link editorial and curatorial practices, between publishing and exhibition making. In fact, several among the interviewees, who are also graphic designers, suggest or declare that editorial projects and exhibitions are different and yet complementary to one another, even comparable. For example, Christoph Keller, curator of the exhibition Kiosk, dedicated to independent art publishing, states that «one of the very reasons for doing books for me has-been not to have to do exhibitions and the possibility of finding other ways to mediate art.» Yet, for this very reason, it is also clear that exhibition projects and publications can be components of larger projects, in which different media and contexts are used to produce discourses and to interpret and communicate ideas and contents. For example, Zak Kyes – graphic designer, art director of the Architectural Association, editor, and curator of the exhibition Forms of Inquiry (see also the exhibition that has been recently devoted to him in Leipzig) – believes that «exhibition-making is quite similar to an editorial process, in which a narrative, argument or thesis is structured using other people’s words, images and artworks.» In his view, then, the publications accompanying the exhibition were not just «a means of documentation,» but really «an exhibition container»: «In this way publications are a means of taking the exhibition where it can’t go in the gallery.» Similarly, Min Choi – graphic designer and curator of his solo exhibition dedicated to the Korean translation and edition, he curated, of Kinross’ Modern Typography – says that there are «things that you cannot show in a book form, that you can more effectively communicate as an exhibition. Or, at least, an exhibition would provide a focus or a forum to discuss the ideas in the book.» In this direction Choi adds an observation about the context and use of books and exhibitions, indicating that a significant difference between the two media lies in the sense of place and communality of the latter: «I regard an exhibition as an intensified form of dialogue: people gather in a physical space, see the work and try to make sense of what they experience. The same sense of communality, of place, is what lacks in a publication.»
Another aspect that emerges from the pages of “Graphic” is the different levels of reading and identification with respect to the role of curator. The perspectives of the interviewees range from the seeming distancing from the position of the curator – as in the case of Radim Peško, curator of From Mars («we are not curators, nor design or art historians, but practising designers, so our position was seeing it as insiders rather than observers») – to the implicit idea of a coincidence of the curator and the designer – as in the case of Choi Min, who curated and designed his show – to the idea of a difference and of contiguity between designing and curating – as suggested by the words of Zak Kyes, according to which curating is a way to go beyond just giving form to supplied contents and «to invent new concepts of design and build bridges and links to other activities such as art, architecture, and literature for instance». In general, however, respondents appear to intend themselves as having occupied the position of an intermediary or facilitator who allowed other people to communicate their projects, rather than imposing his/her own view on a topic. In this line, the role of networks and relationships between designers or artists is also underlined in various interviews as an important motivation, stimulus and resource behind exhibiting and curating design. And a reflection, or evidence, of this role is the presence of the some designers in more than one of the selected exhibitions – such as Åbäke, Daniel Eatock, Min Choi and Radim Peško. In some ways departing from the low-profile attitude to curating, apart from Kyes, is the designer Angelika Burtscher, co-founder and curator, with Daniele Lupo, of the Lungomare Gallery in Bozen. Being not only episodically involved in curating, Burtscher claims in fact a special aim for her exhibition projects, which usually deal with topics other than design: to address the general public and to raise questions through design and visual communication.
Finally, of course among the issues raised by “Graphic” and the interviewees themselves there is also that of design and art, and particularly of their different treatment in the context of the exhibition. What appears from the answers of curators (not just designers), however, is clearly a non-relevance of the question or indifference towards it. For instance, Laurel Ptak, independent art curator, states that «I don’t see art and design as very different from one anohter at all. That’s probably because for me an exhibition doesn’t entirely rest upon what’s on display. The show itself is located somewhere in between what’s on view and the audience’s experience of it. I see my role as a curator as simply opening up that space, giving all participants – whether they are artists, designers, co-curators, or the audience – equal autonomy inside it.» Which basically means that one advantage of looking at design through the context of the exhibition is to avoid getting lost in too captious distinctions of art/design. (Although, we feel, this does not totally cancel the question about art and design, but rather suggests that it would probably be useful to shift it in order to explore other corners, such as the impact of design exhibitions on critical discourse – and vice-versa – or the public perception.)